On Being a Writer in India by Rasana Atreya

Author Rasana Atreya
Author Rasana Atreya

I’m from India, and mostly proud of it. Except when it comes to writing.

What’s my ethnicity got to do with my writing life? Plenty, as you’ll discover.

The unpublished manuscript of my debut novel, Tell A Thousand Lies, was shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia award. Independent of this, I was offered a publishing contract by one of India’s biggest publishing houses (they have fantastic distribution within India).

So what’s the problem?

Well, in India we do not have literary agents. If you’re thinking – yay – no handing over a chunk of your royalties to the agent, well, I wish it were that simple.

Because there are no agents here, publishers see no reason to offer good contracts to writers. The writers have no recourse. Rarely are they offered advances (though I have to admit, I was offered a good – for India – advance).

Bidding wars on manuscripts? Forget it. Better royalties at another publishing house? Out of luck, buddy. Bigger advances? Are you on meth?

You’re lucky if you get the attention of a publishing house. If they offer to publish your book, well, that’s your holy grail, never mind you might have clauses like – no royalties kicking in till 3000 copies are sold because ‘publisher has to make money, too’ (as a small publisher actually said to a fellow writer, who never saw a penny from his/her debut book – protecting the innocent here).

Now here’s where the tricky part comes in. Initial print runs for books could be as small as 2000 books. This is not an unusual situation in India (unless you’re Jeffrey Archer, or Chetan Bhagat, our home grown bestselling author) because the English language market is competing against various Indian languages (we have 18 official languages, 500 odd dialects). So. You have no advance, your book does not sell 2000 copies (small publishers might not report sales accurately – its been known to happen).

Where does that leave you, the published author? With not a paise in your purse.

Is this the case with me? Actually not. My publisher is big, reputable, has offered me an advance *and* royalties. And they have offered to print hardbacks for me. I’m told if the publisher is thinking hardbacks, they are serious about you as author.

Then why am I complaining?

The royalties are small, to begin with. There is no scope for negotiation. None whatsoever. Take it, or leave it – my only options. They keep translation rights, which is fine, except, the sample contracts I’ve seen from literary agents in the US, translation monies get split 50%. Not in my case. Still the same small percentage.

I’ve not even gotten to my biggest gripe – they’re giving me 25% of ebooks royalties. Since they’ve not negotiated with Amazon, I get 25% of 30 % of the price. I don’t get to set the price of the ebook, of course, but there are two ways this can go:

1. The price of the book is as high as the paperback. Let’s get real, who buys ebooks for $20? So no monies.

2. The price is set to under $5, reasonable for a no-name recognition writer like me. Let’s do the math here. After royalties, my share of the ebook – .25 x .3 x $4.99?

37 cents.

So, I’m thinking of going out on my own.

My author friends, to use very polite terms, think I’m freakin’ nuts. In India, ebooks are not popular (I’m one of the rare ones who has an ebook reader). To have visibility, I must have paperbacks, which I can’t distribute on my own, so I must settle for whoever is willing to publish me. CreateSpace, Amazon’s paperback publishing arm, is not a viable option in India because shipping costs are prohibitive.

And did I mention my biggest gripe? I’ve looked at the top selling books, from top publishers in India. They either don’t have a presence on Amazon, or if they do, the books are either:

a. Ridiculously priced as ebooks

b. There are no ebooks, only print books

c. ebooks are uploaded, but there is no product description, no author’s bio on Author Central, no web presence, no ‘likes’, no reviews on Amazon, no book tours, no online book reviews, no interviews with book bloggers …

Here’s my question for the readers of this blog, then.

What’s a writer like me to do?

*     *     *     *     *

Rasana Atreya left a comfortable job in IT because she likes roughing it out as a penniless writer. She’s the mother of two grade schoolers who’ve been begging for the chance to design the cover of her ebook, which might be okay, except her seven year old is BIG into potty humor. You can learn more about Rasana at her blog.

Author: Administrators

All Indies Unlimited staff members, including the admins, are volunteers who work for free. If you enjoy what you read here - all for free - please share with your friends, like us on Facebook and Twitter, and if you don't know how to thank us for all this great, free content - feel free to make a donation! Thanks for being here.

13 thoughts on “On Being a Writer in India by Rasana Atreya”

  1. An excellent article. In my dealings with businesses in India, I was left with the impression they rarely have a good sense of business practices. I think that's clear with your description of the publishing situation over there.

    AA writer like yourself should go Indie, and focus your promotions on countries where eReaders are popular. You deserve it.

    Oh, Rasana, in case it worries you, don;t worry about the potty humor book cover notion, American males seem to love it. 😉

  2. David, you say "In my dealings with businesses in India, I was left with the impression they rarely have a good sense of business practices."

    But this is the case all over the world, isn't it? That's why we need literary agents (to negotiate) in the first place. When it comes down to it, publishing is a business. If there are authors willing to settle for what the publisher is offering, why not? I certainly don't wish to demonize publishers, but it doesn't help our cause, as writers. That's for sure.

    My almost-publisher and I parted on very friendly terms. They were very gracious, in fact, and wished me the very best. They are absolutely willing to take a look at my next manuscript.

    And the way I look at it – this is only one book. I have two other books in the planning stage. I'm giving myself 6 months of promotion on this, then back to writing (I wish I could do both at the same time, but its too draining).

  3. You are in a tough spot. My gut says take the publishing contract because they are so hard to get. You can always self-publish other books at a later date if you aren't happy with your revenues, but at least this way you will have the credibility of being published traditionally. Have you thought about trying to get an American agent and publisher?

    Best of luck!

  4. Don't publish in India. Self-publish in the USA on Amazon Kindle (ebook) and CreateSpace (paperback). I'm sure there must be a way to do it from there or get a partner here. Get an audience here and everywhere else that Amazon sells so you can get some leverage back in India for later. Then, on to the next book. As they say, "A prophet is never recognized in there own land," so might it be with Indian writers.

    Your publisher may be friendly, but they operated as a business. Behind closed doors they're saying, "She'll come crawling back."

  5. I agree with Mark, Rasana. Try looking for a US agent. Then workout the foreign rights for India.

    All the best with it, whichever publishing path you choose!

  6. Karen, Rick, Mark and Lynne – appreciate the comments. I did look for literary agents in the US as well as the UK, but my book is too niche-market (in other words it is more Khaled Hosseini, than mainstream), which can be a tough sell in the best of times.

    I am going the Amazon/CreateSpace route because Amazon hasn't arrived in India as yet (though it is in the works).

  7. Rasana, writers everywhere are asking, "What's the best path to take?" The way things are in publishing these days, the answer is, "Whoda hell knows." You've given it a lot of thought, you're bright and talented, and you have guts. Give it your best shot, and I wish you the all the best for success.

Comments are closed.